The Need for the Bad News

The story of man’s passage from religious or philosophical transcendentalism has been told many times, and, since it has usually been told as a story of progress, it is extremely difficult today to get people in any number to see contrary implications. Yet to establish the fact of decadence is the most pressing duty of our time because, until we have demonstrated that cultural decline is a historical fact—which can be established—and that modern man has about squandered his estate, we cannot combat those who have fallen prey to hysterical optimism. –Ideas Have Consequences, 10

Eliot’s Revolution in Literature

What Eliot’s revolution in literature gave to this age was a renewal of the moral imagination—with social consequences, potentially. Eliot’s orthodoxy, expressed in new forms, offered something more attractive to mind and heart than could either liberalist aridity or the ominous People’s Hall of Culture. Literature and society both depended in a transcendent order, Eliot reminded the twentieth century. “If you will not have God (and he is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin,” Eliot wrote in The Idea of a Christian Society. Eliot scandalized many because he went all the way to “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender—that is, surrender to the divine. —The Sword of Imagination, 215

Thinking Out Loud about The Oresteia, Part 2

Aeschylus seems to have a keen awareness that an admixture of good and evil exists in the action of exercising power, and that a person should be aware of this, especially in times of triumph. Agamemnon in his triumphal return home should not forget all the sorrow and calamity that came about in his winning: the sacrifice of his daughter, the destruction of Troy, the loss of his men, etc. It seems that the meaning of the word “suffering,” as in the phrase “suffering into truth” (109, 111, 243) and “the one who acts must suffer” (167, 171,192), involves the realization of evil and pain that one causes by acting. Orestes suffers when he is aware of this, when the Furies pursue him after the death of his mother. Clytaemnestra suffers when she is tormented by nightmares after killing Agamemnon, and then realizes that what she did might be wrong—before this she does not seem to see any problem with killing her husband and her king.

What is the function of Electra? She seems to be the one to rouse with words the courage of Orestes to kill his mother, as in The Iliad the soldiers needed to be roused for battle. Because she is not involved in the power schemes, she is innocent and removed from the heat of the actions. Antigone, conversely, steps away from her passive role into an active role that will cause her to suffer from her actions.

Orestes, in many ways, is parallel to Telemachus: Orestes seems to be what Telemachus would have been had his father not returned: both are fatherless, they are the same age, both return to avenge and restore order, though Telemachus has the advantage of his father guiding his steps and helping him in the fight. Of course, the biggest difference between Agamemnon and Odysseus is that their wives stand in stark opposite sides: the one is faithful, the other is a traitor.

Achilles seems to be like the Furies: killing with unbridled passion (anger) without stopping to think whether their actions are just. Orestes seems to be like Odysseus in that he measures violence, metes it out only as necessary, and takes full responsibility for it. The point of The Oresteia seems to be that the Furies were dispensing judgment without pausing to consider the complicated aspects of the situation, and Athena brings in logic and reason into the arena of justice, as well as controlled passions—and for this reason Athena does not banish the Furies, but rather channels their passions in a good direction.

Aeschylus seems to have written The Oresteia for the Greeks to respect and support the new institution of courts. Previous to the courts, a blood relation would demand justice upon spilling of the blood of a loved one. Now society—through a court system—would demand justice upon any spilling of blood. This development in the Greek world was very important and Aeschylus is providing an apology for it. He also is attempting to provide a theodicy of the gods, explaining how they developed and how they are reconciled to reason and justice.

Newman on the Imagination

What do you think about this?

Strictly speaking, it is not imagination that causes action; but hope and fear, likes and dislikes, appetite, passion, affection, the stirrings of selfishness and self-love. What imagination does for us is to find a means of stimulating those motive powers; and it does so by providing a supply of objects strong enough to stimulate them. The thought of honour, glory, duty, self-aggrandisement, gain, or on the other hand of Divine Goodness, future reward, eternal life, perseveringly dwelt upon, leads us along a course of action corresponding to itself, but only in case there be that in our minds which is congenial to it.

–John Henry Newman, A Grammar of Assent

Thinking Out Loud about The Oresteia, Part 1

The Oresteia has several parallels with The Odyssey. On one hand are the obvious correspondences between Odysseus and Agamemnon traveling home after the war. They both struggle to get home, suffer much loss along the way, find disarray that needs to be addressed in their homes and kingdoms, and have loyal loved ones waiting for them. Agamemnon finds out too late that his own wife is part of the chaos and is disloyal. On the other hand, the two books contain dissimilarities: Orestes restores order in his father’s kingdom by killing his own mother, the focus on the story is upon a woman (Clytaemnestra), and gods and men are at odds about what is just (Zeus, Athena, and Apollo against the Furies; and the Chorus Orestes, and Electra against Aegistus and Clytaemnestra).

The theme that violence breeds more violence (“the one who acts must suffer”) is also found both in Homer and Aeschylus. While in The Odyssey peace is decreed by the gods upon the compliance of men, in The Iliad the full result of violence is shown with impending doom in the air. The Oresteia seems to show that violence can end, provided that justice is satisfied, and justice seems to be based on reason—rather than passions—and the will of the gods. Athena shows that Orestes had acted justly by the tribunal’s vote, her deciding ballot, and Apollo’s defense of Orestes stating that Zeus decreed and Apollo intervened to make Orestes kill his mother. Then Athena uses words and reason to pacify the Furies and give them a new respectable role before the gods and men. What is this new role of the Eumenides? Why were they hated by the gods, as Apollo tells them? Was it because they were ugly and loathsome or were those qualities merely external reflections of their inner characters? Does Aeschylus attempt to show the reader the development of the gods—from simple, passionate, and non-reasoning (the Furies), to sophisticated, logical, and insightful (Athena, Apollo, Zeus)?

The Oresteia also negatively focuses on two women who caused suffering and death, particularly in Agamemnon’s life: Clytaemnestra and Helen (164). Helen seems to be a foil for Clytaemnestra, showing how Helen was the cause of so much destruction (129, 131-132, 164). Clytaemnestra is presented as a monster (152): as a deformed woman who acts unnaturally, killing her king, her husband, the father of her children, and her lover. Perhaps she is said to act like a man (103, 136, 171) to heighten her distortion and to strip her of motherly and wifely affection.

Thinking Out Loud about The Odyssey, Part 6

The Odyssey, Books XVII-XXIV, cont.

The gods seem to have evolved in Homer’s works, but his books do not give us hints about further development of the gods. They have particular and local affiliations, but they seem to move towards diminishing these. Thus, Zeus allows Sarpedon to die, but Poseidon is vengeful when Cyclops is wounded. The books are not philosophical: they do not present a deep analysis about life, but rather, they give some starting points for asking questions. The poetic energy is directed towards showing the possibility that the divine order is in accord with our order. No easy explanation for life is given, and the divine and human orders have moral alignment which necessitates the development of the gods.

This alignment is very significant. The Odyssey has the ghost of The Iliad lingering around bringing back Achilles (469-471). Odysseus is the new Achilles who uses the skills of a warrior—the only skills he has—to restore the domestic order (471). Interestingly enough, though Odysseus uses the skills of the warrior to restore domestic order, he does not use force to reestablish his relationship with his wife. He has to win her over again, through words.

Incidentally, sleep seems to be connected to grief, so when Odysseus comes back and his relationship with his wife is reestablished, they do not sleep until everything is told. It seems that during the happy moments, sleep is unwelcome.

The Odyssey emphasizes order, hierarchy, and loyalty to men and gods. High status, however, can still defy order, as when the suitors (high in the social ladder) bring in disorder, or when the swineherd and cattleherd (low in the social ladder) help restore order. This shows that the world does not always reflect order—even if the social order prevails—and order is not merely power, though power is required to preserve order. Disorder needs to be set right. So the warrior comes back and restores order by violent acts.

Violence, however, always produces more violence. Understanding this, Odysseus measures his actions. Achilles did not seem to see this, and thus, did not control himself and destroyed everything around him. Because violence will breed more violence, it takes a decree of the gods to restore peace. Though Athena decrees peace, Odysseus obeys her command, showing that divine decree still operates in conjunction with human consent.

The episode of the suitors’ incontrollable laugh before their destruction could point to something like demonic possession that comes from accumulated disorder, and provides a kind of moral framework for the judgment of evildoers.

Henry Fielding on Satire

The only source of the true Ridiculous (as it appears to me) is Affectation…Now Affectation proceeds from one of these two causes, Vanity, or Hypocrisy: for as Vanity puts us on affecting false Characters, in order to purchase Applause; so Hypocrisy sets us on an Endeavour to avoid censure by Concealing our Vices under an Appearance of their opposite Virtues.

From the Discovery of this Affectation arises the Ridiculous—which always strikes the Reader with Surprise and Pleasure; and that in a higher and stronger Degree when the Affectation arises from Hypocrisy, than when from Vanity: for to discover any one to be the exact Reverse of what he affects, is more surprising, and consequently more ridiculous, than to find him a little deficient in the Quality he desires the Reputation of” (Preface to Joseph Andrews, Norton Edition, 6-7)

Thinking Out Loud about The Odyssey, Part 5

The Odyssey, Books XVII-XXIV

This section drives home (no pun intended) the idea that hospitality reveals a person’s reverence towards the gods. Hospitality is said to be a test of the suitors, for example, when Odysseus as a beggar in Book XVII is told to ask them for food, and although they would not pass the test, the chance was still given to them (366). In the end, the suitors are impious because they are not hospitable towards the beggar and because they abuse Telemachus’ and Penelope’s hospitality (383, 417, 422) [or perhaps they are just impious and their lack of hospitality is another factor revealing their impiety]. Hospitality also is said to bring much honor to the person who practices it, because guests carry the person’s good report to far away places (Book XIX, 401). So even though Penelope had never left her home, her praise could be spread throughout the world through her hospitality.

Penelope, who does not heed strangers at her door who tell her about her husband (394), is called a stranger when her husband returns (461). She and her husband become strangers to each other because they have been separated so long. She is hospitable towards the stranger Odysseus, but is reluctant to trust him, until he passes her astute tests and proves to be who he says he is. It seems that those who are good at tricking others for their own advantage fear that they will be tricked, and therefore, need ways to confirm what strangers tell them. Once the stranger becomes familiar, it seems that the deceitfulness is no longer necessary. In other words, Odysseus no longer tricks Telemachus or Penelope once he reveals himself to them. Perhaps this is what Athena meant when she told Odysseus that now that he was home, he could put off tricks.

Penelope’s wit allows her to bring into her home her share of riches, just like Telemachus and Odysseus had brought riches from their travels. Penelope cunningly requests gifts from the suitors, and they fill her arms with precious items (384-385). Like Odysseus, she is able to use her words to bring about some benefit to herself, in this case, material goods.

Especially Book XXII reveals numerous parallels to The Iliad. The description of the death of the suitors, where the arrows pierced, how they fell to the ground, how Odysseus puts on the armor, all seem akin to the descriptions of the battle scenes in The Iliad. What does not seem to correspond is the quality of the warriors, as Athena points out under the guise of Mentor: the suitors are not great warriors (446). In fact, they are even unable to bend the Odysseus’ bow, so the battle—or the threat of the suitors—seems disproportionate and exaggerated at this point. Why is this the case? Is it to elevate the swineherd and the cowherd? Is it to bind them to Telemachus and Odysseus as people who are bound by war? Is it merely to reflect The Iliad? In fact, the statement that Penelope would be so virtuous that a song would be composed to praise her (474) is even parallel to Achilles’ prediction that the fight between him and Agamemnon would be known for ages (Iliad 490).